Category Archives: Posttraumatic Growth

Posttraumatic Growth : Trauma, The Brain, Dissociation And Creativity


I have written elsewhere on this site in several previously published posts how, ultimately, even extremely serious and protracted trauma can lead to what is termed posttraumatic growth which involves an individual developing in ways that would not have occurred had it not been for his / her traumatic experiences.

One such positive outcome which may follow trauma is that of a transformation of the pain one has suffered into acts of creativity – three examples that spring immediately to mind are Dostoevsky’s The House Of The Dead, Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning and Wilde’s De Profundis.

David Aberbach, author of the highly recommended book Surviving Trauma : Loss And Literature, has made a study of the association between trauma (specifically, unresolved grief) and creativity and, in so doing, has drawn several interesting conclusions. I summarise these conclusions below :

  • creativity in response to trauma provides a much-needed sense of control after the traumatic experience itself has undermined one’s sense of control.
  • distressing emotional activity can be positively channelled – there is a quote from Virginia Wolfe, which reflects this idea :

How many times have people used a pen or paintbrush because they couldn’t pull the trigger?’ – Virginia Wolfe.

  • one becomes aware of qualities that exist within oneself that have been lying dormant and that would not have been revealed were it not for the traumatic catalyst.
  • the trauma itself may not be fully mastered, but a sense of compensation for this can be achieved by mastering something else of significance.
  • the creative work may be of great value to others – so something positive has come out of one’s negative experiences, reducing our self-destructive feelings that the time spent living through the trauma has been wasted.


A longitudinal study carried out at California State University found that those who had suffered significantly traumatic childhoods were more likely than those who had experienced relatively stable childhoods to experience intensely creative impulses (as well as psychological pathologies, as firmly established by a vast array of other research, much of which is examined on this site).

The study involved 232 participants comprising :

  • 20 musicians and opera singers.
  • 129 dancers.
  • 83 actors, directors and designers.

Using self-reports provided from the participants, the researchers found those who had suffered extremely high levels of childhood trauma were more prone to internalized shame, anxiety and fantasies.

They also found that this group of participants were more engaged with creative processes and more likely to experience feelings of inspiration.

Furthermore, these individuals were found to be particularly receptive to art in general and had a greater appreciation of the transformational power of creativity.

Based on these findings, the researchers hypothesized that the creative process may be related to an individual’s resilience in the face of adversity.


We have seen from numerous other articles that I have previously published on this site that those who have suffered severe and protracted childhood trauma are at risk of suffering impaired physical development of the brain in regions such as the hippocampus and the amygdala due to the excessive need to be hypervigilant (because of constant fear of a parent or primary caretaker becoming abusive – either emotionally or physically – which can lead to us becoming trapped in a perpetual state of ‘fight or flight’ ; this, in turn, can lead to the brain being over-exposed to adrenalin as we are growing up, which is one of the factors that cause the physical harm).

However, in such circumstances, the brain can also protect itself by inducing in the trauma victim feelings of dissociation (in relation to this, you may wish to read my previously published articles; ‘Two Opposite Ways The Child Responds To Stress: Hypervigilance And Dissociation’ or ‘Is Your Predominant Response To Trauma Flooding Or Dissociation?’).

Dissociation is a defence mechanism which helps the individual to disconnect mentally from the reality of their traumatic circumstances – so it can be viewed as a self-protective mental escape which may, for example, include going into a ‘fantasy world’ or developing ‘imaginary friends’, (both of which psychologically protective techniques are themselves forms of creativity) – and research suggests (e.g. Ross) that such psychological processes may help protect the brain from physical harm (or, more specifically, from atrophying).

Indeed, there is also increasing evidence of a link between acute dissociative states, ‘hyperassociative cognition’ / ‘fluidity of association’ and creativity (Van der Kloet et al. 2013 / Chakravarty, 2010). Interestingly, too, this area of research has produced evidence suggesting that those who suffer from severe dissociation as a result of trauma are also prone to sleep disturbance and may experience less deep sleep and more R.E.M. sleep (R.E.M. sleep is the stage of sleep in which we dream / experience nightmares – dreaming/experiencing nightmares, too, of course, are forms creative activity, albeit an unconscious ones).

All that we see and seem is but a dream within a dream. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.‘ Edgar Allan Poe.


  • Forgeard (University of Pennsylvania) suggests that those suffering from mental anguish may use creative activities as a form of self-therapy.
  • ‘Orphanhood Effect’: This term refers to the theory that those individuals orphaned early in life are more likely than the average individual to develop creative talents (especially as writers). According to Csikszentmihalyi, this phenomenon may be due to the fact that losing one’s parents early in life can lead to social isolation which, in turn, may mean the individual is less likely to be indoctrinated with the kind of socially conventional thinking which could inhibit creativity.
  • Shattered Assumptions Theory: If we suffer severe trauma, a frequent effect is that our ‘pre-trauma’ view of the world is ‘shattered’ and, as a result. we see the world ‘through new eyes.’ This can lead to the kind of new and original insights that fuel creativity.

Boost Your Creativity and Realise Your Creative Potential

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


Reframing The Past : How To Reframe Traumatic Memories



Many of us who have experienced significant and protracted childhood trauma have, as adults, suffered from the inadvertent internalization of our parents’ (or caretakers’) attitude and feelings towards us as we were growing up and, as a result, may have come to develop deeply painful core beliefs about ourselves ; commonly, these beliefs revolve around a deeply entrenched self-concept of being ‘unlovable’ and ‘bad‘, particularly if we were rejected (either explicitly or implicitly).

Compounding this problem, for reasons I have explained elsewhere, we may have idealized our parents – even if we were badly abused by them, making our internaliztion of their damaging attitudes and behaviors even more unshakable and tenacious.

One way we may be able to address our fixation upon these debilitating, self-lacerating ideas about ourselves, instilled in us when we were profoundly vulnerable, and to free ourselves from the feelings of torment they induce, is by REFRAMING THE PAST.


Reframing the past involves giving ourselves the power to see our true potential, unsullied by what our parents (either deliberately or as a function of their lack of sensitivity / insight) might have taught us to believe (e.g. that we are worthless and uncceptable as a human being).

In so doing, we can potentially be free from viewing ourselves through the distorted lense we have so far, through no fault of our own and as if hypnotized by an evil mesmerist, gaze through.

In this way, we can hopefully start to see what we may really be able to achieve in important areas of life, such as relationships and work. opening up opportunities for ourselves that may otherwise have been denied us.


According to the psychiatrist, Harold Bloomfield, author of the excellent book : ‘Making Peace With The Past’, whilst we are obviously impotent to change the past, what we are able to do is to change how we experience it, our attitude to it and how it emotionally affects us from now on by changing our (hitherto) habitual response to it.

In relation to this, Bloomfield advises us to reinterpret the implications of the traumatic events of our childhood by asking ourselves questions such as how the experiences have made us stronger and what wisdom we have gained from them.

Indeed, there is a whole field of study devoted to investigating how traumatic experiences can actually, ultimately, improve us as an individual called posttraumatic growth (about which I have published several articles on this site previously – e.g. you may wish to read my post entitled : The Main Elements Of Posttraumatic Growth.).

You may also wish to read my related post : Posttraumatic Growth : Reconstructing The Life Story We Tell Ourselves.


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Childhood Trauma And ‘Shattered Assumptions’ Theory

One of the major effects of childhood trauma, especially if it has led us, as adults, to develop conditions such as borderline personality disorder or complex posttraumatic stress disorder, is that it can radically alter our most fundamental and core beliefs about how the world and our lives operate.

In this way, prolonged and significant childhood trauma can transform the core belief that the world is generally a safe place for us to inhabit into the opposite core belief that ‘the world is a dangerous and threatening place and I must be constantly on guard and hypervigilant.’

This idea is reflected in Professor Janoff-Bulman’s (University of Massuhusetts Amherst) ‘SHATTERED ASSUMPTIONS’ THEORY (1992) which proposes (amongst other things) that the experience of trauma can eradicate the optimistic view that, as long as we do the right things in life, everything will be O.K. In other words, our (pre-trauma) assumption that we are safe in the world is shattered.


When our fundamental assumptions about the world are shattered in this way, it is necessary, according to Janoff-Bulman, for us to rebuild our internal, mental representation of the world and it has been proposed that two therapies that can help us to achieve this are : cognitive processing therapy and exposure therapy.

Such therapies can help us to ‘cognitively restructure’ our view of our traumatic experience, ourselves and the world in general. This ‘cognitive restructuring’ process may entail, at first, attempting to make sense of the traumatizing events we have lived through ; initially, this may give rise to automatic thoughts relating to our trauma that we find intrusive and distressing.

However, later on in the process, such negative ruminations can transform into more positive thoughts and feelings, such as finding meaning in what has happened to us, learning to accept our view of the world might have changed and coming to a mental accommodation with this fact, and, ulimately, acquiring greater wisdom and personal / spiritual growth, also known as POST TRAUMATIC GROWTH.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Posttraumatic Growth : An Existential Perspective

posttraumatic existential growth

We have seen from other articles that I have published in the ‘Postraumatic Growth’ section (see MAIN MENU at the top of this page) of this site that it is not only possible to recover from the adverse effects of trauma but even to go on to develop as an individual in response them in ways that would not have been possible had the traumatic events not occurred.

The concept of posttraumatic growth is closely related to existential philosophy / psychology. Yalom (1980) asserts that the four fundamental existential concerns that mankind faces are :





Whilst most people go through life without dwelling on these four existential concerns too deeply (distracted as they are by life’s more superficial and mundane problems), there are certain life events that can bring them sharply into focus, including what Yalom refers to as a ‘COLLAPSE IN MEANING-MAKING SCHEMAas may occur as a result of severely traumatic experiences. (The term schema refers to the mental models we construct that help us make sense of / interpret the world around us. To read my article : ‘Childhood Trauma Leading To The Development Of Negative Schema’, click here.)

existential crisis

Yahom suggests that when a person becomes aware of one (or more) of these existential concerns as a result of trauma, s/he will enter a state of anxiety (i’e’ s/he will experience as EXISTENTIAL CRISIS).

Crucially, however, Yahom states, how long this state of anxiety lasts, together with its intensity, determines whether or not the individual who experiences the existential crisis a result of his / her traumatic experiences enters :

A) A positive state of posttraumatic growth 


B) A negative state of psychopathology

If s/he is fortunate enough to enter a positive state of posttraumatic growth, the individual can experience a profound sense of renewed meaning in life.

In relation to existential concerns, this may involve a far deeper appreciation of life given a more vivid awareness of one’s mortality and how precarious human existence is (specifically, this is connected to the existential concerns of meaning and death).

Or, to provide another example, a person may realize, given life’s brevity and uncertainty, s/he should make the free choice to live life more authentically, perhaps involving a radical change of career, lifestyle and social acquaintances (specifically, this is connected to the existential concerns of death and what to do with one’s freedom of choice).

A third example would be that of a person who finds a new, meaningful cause, related to the traumatic experience s/he suffered, to work for in life, such as a person who survived a highly disturbed childhood deciding to undertake helping disturbed children as his/her vocation (specifically, this is connected to the existential concern of finding meaning in life, and, thus, overcoming an existing, perceived state of meaninglessness).


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).



Posttraumatic Growth : The Importance Of Relationships And Social Support

posttraumatic growth relationships social support


Human beings are naturally social animals and it is a basic and fundamental instinct for us to try to bond, connect and form attachments with others; the benefits we may gain from such relationships to others when we have experienced trauma include providing us with :

  • a greater sense of meaning in life
  • a greater sense of safety
  • a greater sense of belonging
  • a greater sense of affirmation / self-worth
  • someone to confide in
  • someone to advise us about coping strategies
  • someone to help us understand and process what has happened to us
  • someone who can help us look at what has happened from a new and original perspective
  • someone who can help distract us from our negative ruminations and feelings
  • someone who can help to emotionally sooth us

What Does The Research Say?

Our relationships with others significantly influence how we cope with and respond to trauma ; the researchers Calhoun and Tedeschi (2006) suggested that specific reasons as to why this should be so included the following :

  • other people may positively alter how we view the world and how we interpret and perceive events
  • other people may introduce us to additional coping methods
  • other people may provide us with social support

Other researchers (e.g. Cordova et al., 2001  Leopore and Revenson, 2006) suggest that relationships with others in which we feel safe to make emotional disclosures may be of particular value.

Leopore and Revenson also suggest that our relationships with others can help with how we respond to trauma in the following ways :

  • weakening the connection between the trauma and negative emotional responses and replacing them with positive emotional responses
  • helping us to regulate (control) our negative emotions connected to the trauma by shifting our focus of attention
  • helping us to habituate to negative emotions connected to the trauma
  • facilitating positive cognitive reappraisals in relation to the trauma

  • Through his research, Weiss (2004) found that those who had suffered traumatic experiences can benefit in particular by having social relations with others who have also lived through trauma and who have not only coped with it, but have also experienced posttraumatic growth in response to their traumatic experiences and can, therefore, act as role-models.
  • Schroevers et al., (2010) conducted research suggesting that having other people to help the individual who has suffered trauma cognitively process information connected with the traumatic experience can also be of significant be
  • Those with access to good social support systems tend to have both a better sense of general emotional wellness (Henderson and Brown,1988) and lower levels of depression (Lara et al.,1997) when compared to those individuals who lack social support.
  • Having good social support not only improves our psychological health, but also has benefits for our physical health such as strengthening our immune system (Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser, 1992).

Perception Of Social Support Versus Actual Social Support :

Research has also found that even if, by any reasonable, objective measure, we are receiving adequate social support during and after traumatic periods its benefits will be greatly diminished if we do not perceive it as adequate ; for example ; if we perceive someone we are close to as being non-receptive when we confide in him/her information about our traumatic experience – irrespective of whether they actually are non-receptive – our sense of emotional well-being will be diminished (Cordova et al., 2001).

From such research we are able to infer that in order for us to have a significantly increased chance of coping with trauma and experiencing posttraumatic growth, it is not necessarily enough to receive adequate social support – we must, too, believe that those providing this support genuinely care about us.

The Importance Of Avoiding Negative And Critical Social Interaction :

Research also suggests that, in the aftermath of trauma, it is at least as important (and, perhaps, even more important), to avoid negative and critical social interaction in the aftermath of trauma as it is to find positive support if one wishes to experience posttraumatic growth.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Posttraumatic Growth : Achieving Maslow’s ‘Self-Actualization’

posttraumatic growth and Maslow's self-actualization

Achieving Self-Actualization :

The concept of posttraumatic growth hinges on the idea that, although suffering trauma can be devastating, some individuals not only merely survive their traumatic experiences, but go on to achieve a higher level of personal development than they would have been able to obtain had these traumatic experiences not occurred in their lives.

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs

Above : Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs

According to the psychologist Maslow (famous for his theory concerning the human hierarchy of needs), the highest level of human psychological need, and the hardest to attain, is what Maslow refers to as SELF-ACTUALIZATION. Below, I outline what he meant by this :


According to Maslow, very few individuals achieve ‘selfactualization’, but the characteristics of those who do are as follows :

People who have attained self-actualization are, according to Maslow, those who 

– feel grateful for things many may take for granted

– view problems as challenges

– make independent judgments based upon own experience rather than due to culture / societal trends

– are creative and original

– have just a few close / intense friendships rather than many relatively superficial relationships

– are comfortable being alone

– have an acute sense of humour (though not the type of humour that hurts others)

– are interested and curious about a wide range of things

– are democratic

–  are non-discriminating / nonprejudicial / accepting of other people’s differences

– are compassionate towards fellow members of society

– are spontaneous

– have the ability to derive child-like pleasure from becoming engrossed in simple activities

– are self-accepting (including accepting their weaknesses and faults – therefore not defensive and not in need of presenting and hiding behind false social image of being artificial / superficial)

– are authentic / true to oneself (as opposed to being unthinkingly and unreflectively conformist) / ability to resist and not be manipulated by social pressure

– have a strong sense of reality

– possess humanity

– possess humility

– have strong sense of purpose

– do not expend useless energy worrying about relatively trivial problems

– are focused upon personal growth and self – development rather than conventional and often hollow achievements such as wealth and status

Resource :


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE( FAHE)


Posttraumatic Growth – Techniques to Help Keep Remaining Symptoms of Trauma Under Control


I have stated before that just because we have entered the phase of posttraumatic growth, this does not mean symptoms of trauma have been completely eradicated. Therefore, in order to be able to maximize the potential of our posttraumatic growth, it is very useful to know about techniques to manage re-emerging symptoms resulting from our experience of trauma, so that they interfere with our recovery as little as possible.


So, if, during our recovery/posttraumatic growth, we feel our symptoms are re-asserting themselves, we can employ the use of the following techniques:

– avoid interpersonal conflict (eg do not allow ourselves to be drawn into energy sapping and demoralizing arguments)

– talk to others about how we are feeling

– take as much time as possible for relaxation (eg gentle exercise,meditation, warm bath)

– indulge in as many enjoyable and pleasurable activities as possible, WITHOUT FEELING GUILTY ABOUT IT (see the activities as a form of necessary therapy)

– treat ourselves with compassion and do not blame ourselves for the effect the trauma has had on us

– keep to a routine; this is very important as it gives us a sense of predictability, control, safety and security

– make use of any social support systems as much as possible (eg friends, family, support groups). Research shows that those with a strong social support network in place cope better with the effects of traumatic experiences

– remember that many individuals who experience significant trauma find that ,once they have come through it, they have gained much inner strength and have greatly developed as people with a much deeper appreciation of life than they had before the traumatic experience/s occurred

– try not to avoid situations which remind you of the original trauma, where at all possible,as this is an effective way of overcoming the fear associated with such situations; avoidance keeps the problem going

– keep reminding yourself that human beings are extremely resilient; many people throughout the ages have been through appalling experiences yet have become stronger people as a result

– it important to remember that seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness or failure

Note : the above suggestions are based on advice given by the Academy of Cognitive Therapy.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).